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Reps Urge USDA to Shut Down Foster Farms After Chicken Recall

Image: A truck entering the Foster Farms processing plant in Livingston, Calif.

A truck enters a Foster Farms poultry processing plant in Livingston, Calif. AP file

Two members of Congress are calling on federal agriculture officials to shut down all Foster Farms poultry plants until a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 600 people is resolved.

The move announced Monday by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., comes after the California-based firm voluntarily recalled all chicken parts produced during several days in March. Government health officials had confirmed that a person became ill in May after eating the contaminated meat.

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The recall was announced late July 3 by U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service officials. The next day, July 4, a federal holiday, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly updated the case count to reflect that at least 621 people in 29 states and Puerto Rico have been sickened by Salmonella Heidelberg tied to Foster Farms chicken since March 2013.

“Burying news late at night on a holiday weekend may be a time-honored tradition by Washington spin doctors, but it is a shameful way to protect public health,” DeLauro and Slaughter said in a statement.

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Neither Foster Farms nor USDA officials would say how many pounds of chicken were affected by the recall, calling it an “undetermined amount.”

FSIS officials said until now, they had not been able to confirm a direct link between the Foster Farms chicken and human illness. They have said they have no authority to issue a mandatory recall or to shut down the plants, although federal officials did shutter the firms when they found cockroaches at a Foster Farms plant last winter.

CDC officials told NBC News that they took the unusual step of updating the case count on a holiday after learning USDA would notify the public about the recall on Thursday. FSIS officials said they acted as quickly as they could.

"FSIS acted aggressively and expeditiously as soon as information was available to establish a conclusive link between a Foster Farms product and an illness, and then to initiate the recall process," spokesman Adam Tarr said in a statement. "Once we determined the scope of the recall, FSIS stayed on the job around the clock to proactively share the information with media and other entities to get information to consumers in advance of July 4 grilling."

DeLauro and Slaughter have introduced legislation that would require food recalls during such outbreaks. The bill, called the Pathogens Reduction and Testing Reform Act, would require USDA to recall any meat, poultry or egg product contaminated by pathogens that can cause serious illness or death, or that are resistant to two or more antibiotics critical to treating human illness.

The Foster Farms outbreak includes seven strains of drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg, which make infections difficult to treat. Nearly 40 percent of victims have been hospitalized and 13 percent have developed serious bloodstream infections.

Foster Farms officials did not immediately respond to NBC requests for comment on the demand to shutter their plants. The firm has recalled all Foster Farms chicken products with freeze-by or use-by dates from March 16 through March 29, 2014 and frozen Sunland Chicken products with best-by dates of from March 7 through March 11, 2015. The recalled products bear the plant numbers P6137, P6137A or P7632. The chicken was shipped to stores including Costco, Foodmaxx, Kroger, Safeway and others in 11 states.

"How many more people will fall ill, or even be hospitalized, before USDA does the right thing and cracks down on companies that threaten our families' health and safety?" DeLauro and Slaughter said.

For a complete list of recalled products, click here.